Wisconsin Academy Review
Companion to A Sand County Almanac
This volume (hereafter Companion), edited by a member of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point's Philosophy Department and its College of Natural Resources, contains a number of previously published essays along with some newly written and rewritten material. The finished product presents Aldo Leopold and his best-known work from a variety of points of view -- philosophical, biographical, historical, literary-critical, and practical. It brings together some fine work by some of the country's most able Leopold scholars and is a welcome addition to the Leopold literature.
Companion's most notable feature is Part II, "The Book." In "The Making of A Sand County Almanac" Dennis Ribbens traces the history of Leopold's efforts to get his book published. The letters back and forth between Leopold and prospective publishers, and between Leopold and friends and advisors, tell us some important things about the genesis of "The Book," and about Leopold's purposes in putting it together, e.g., why he insisted on keeping sections such as the familiar essays which comprise "The Upshot" when publishers recommended their excision. In "The Conflicts of an Ecological Conscience," an essay Callicott describes as being "in my opinion the most insightful study of A Sand County Almanac as a whole, ever made," Peter Fritzell analyzes "The Book" as a literary whole, calling attention to its deep tensions and ambiguities, some of which Callicott tries to resolve in his own essays later in Companion. Both Ribbens's and Fritzell's essays bring much-needed light to the problems of interpreting "The Book" and are among the most interesting essays in the book.
In Part I, "The Author," Curt Meine and Susan Flader -- both of whom have published their own book-length discussions of Leopold -- offer useful analyses of Leopold's boyhood and his central Wisconsin "shack experiences." Roderick Nash's discussion in "Aldo Leopold's Intellectual Heritage," on the other hand, is thin and superficial, and, as Callicott points out in his introduction, seriously distorts the basis of Leopold's "land ethic."
More sophisticated analyses of the substance of the "land ethic" appear in Part III, "The Upshot." In "Building 'The Land Ethic'" Meine teases out different strands in what he calls "Leopold's most important essay"; and his analysis of how these strands were woven together by Leopold displays well the care with which Leopold worked. Sand County is much more than an eloquent nature book; it is a carefully conceived, subtly crafted whole, and "The Land Ethic" is a carefully wrought part of that whole. Callicott's "Conceptual Foundations of the Land Ethic" is a useful corrective to Nash's superficial and misleading analysis.
In "The Land Aesthetic" Callicott suggests that "natural... aesthetics is a persistent concern" of Leopold. This is worth dwelling on. The ubiquity and variety of perceptual terms in Sand County is striking. Leopold writes of a "refined taste in natural objects," of a "taste for country," of "habits of the human eye," of "the superficial eye," of "our ability to perceive quality in nature" and the fact that "ecological science has wrought a change in the mental eye." He laments the tendency of "biological education" to dull one's impressions of one's surroundings by filling one's mind with unimportant details. And duck hunting is, in the last analysis, an "aesthetic exercise."
Callicott illustrates very nicely Leopold's conception of the role of ecological understanding in one's perception of nature. "Ecological science has wrought a change in the mental eye" -- where Daniel Boone saw only "facts" and "attributes" one can now see "origins" and "functions" and "mechanisms." Hence Leopold's belief that essential to the "recreational process" is perception of the natural processes by which the land and the living things upon it have achieved their characteristic forms (evolution) and by which they maintain their existence (ecology). Callicott rightly points out the relative neglect "natural aesthetics" has suffered at the hands of philosophers and suggests that the visual bias of much "artifactual aesthetics" may be partly responsible for this neglect. Visual terms form a large part of the aesthetic vocabulary of Sand County; but there are aural terms (recall the first sentences of "January" and "November" and some of the titles of sections in Sand County: "The Choral Copse," "Marshland Elegy," "Song of the Gavilan," "Goose Music"); olfactory ones (consider Leopold's reference to his dog's "educated nose" searching for "olfactory gold," and finding "the olfactory poems that who-knows-what silent creatures have written in the summer night"); and tactile ones (e.g., having one's shins warmed by the oak one has split, feeling the sun as it rises in the morning). One of the things that contributes to the force and durability of Sand County is the close attention Leopold gives to sensory details in his descriptions of the land. Callicott is to be thanked for calling attention to this aspect of Leopold's work; and those who want to explore the full range of Leopold's thought would do well to pursue his lead.
I think that the most important essays in this collection and the ones which will prove most beneficial to those interested in Leopold and his impact on environmental thought are those focused most closely on Leopold's written work. Interpreting a work as many-layered as A Sand County Almanac is difficult, and to have attention drawn to its structure, organization, and genesis cannot but help in that process. It is a testimony to the lasting value of Leopold's writings that they repay critical attention of the sort this book offers.
Peter Losin, assistant professor of philosophy at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, received his Ph.D. from UW-Madison.
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